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Stanford’s defense will be Oregon’s biggest challenge in 2014



No. 5 Oregon’s week two victory over No. 8 Michigan State did a lot for its offense’s reputation. It proved that the Ducks have the ability to man-up against the nation’s most physical defenses, but there is still a major task left for Oregon to prove its legitimacy: beat Stanford.

Stanford’s defense has had Oregon’s number for the past few seasons and represents the best defense the Pac-12 has to offer this season. On Saturday the Cardinal will look to repeat its game plan from the past two seasons and do whatever it can to prevent Oregon from running its staple plays (inside zone runs, outside zone runs and bubble screens) to make the offense more predictable.

In 2012, Oregon ran 13 outside zone plays against Stanford that netted 24 yards (1.86 yards per carry). In total, Oregon gained just 122 yards on designed runs in that game, a season low.

The lack of a true running game consistently forced Oregon into unfavorable situations on third downs. Oregon averaged 7.6 yards to go on third down, offering explanation to the Ducks converting on just 4-of-17 (24 percent) third downs, the lowest-conversion percentage the Ducks had since the LSU game in 2011.

Take a look at one of Oregon’s less favorable third down situations from that game.

After back-to-back unproductive runs on first and second down, Stanford earned the ability to sit back in zone coverage, keeping Oregon’s deeper routes in check as its linebackers made sure Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota couldn’t pull the ball down and run for the first down.

Stanford also did a very good job of applying pressure on Mariota without sacrificing coverage. Mariota was pressured on a season-high 10 drop backs, nine of which came when Stanford rushed four or fewer rushers.

Not counting from Mariota’s 77 yard scramble in the first quarter, the Cardinal held the Oregon quarterback to just 12 yards rushing in 2012.

In 2013, Stanford played even better against Oregon. The Ducks were visibly overmatched along the offensive line as they could only muster 62 yards on the ground, which led to a 3-of-10 third down conversion rate.

But last year’s game was considerably different than this season’s. Stanford’s offense was much better last year and featured Tyler Gaffney as a true workhorse in the backfield. This time around, quarterback Kevin Hogan will have to shoulder much more of the weight on offense, which makes the comparison between the 2012 and 2014 match ups more reasonable.

As was the case in 2012, Stanford’s defense represents Oregon’s biggest challenge in the 2014 season. According to S&P+, the Cardinal defense is even better than Michigan State’s in nearly every area outside of passing downs and drive efficiency. The Spartans happen to be the nation’s best defense in passing situations, while the Cardinal are fifth in that category.

Expect Oregon’s offense to struggle against Stanford. With or without Jake Fisher, Stanford’s defense is likely the nation’s best prepared unit to stop the Ducks; they play extremely well against the run and do a very good job at preventing offenses from establishing any momentum and gaining field position against them as Stanford’s defense is No. 1 in the country in yards per play at just 3.7.

However, Stanford’s defense’s lone weakness appears to be their inability to stop offenses once they start rolling. Once a team picks up the initial first down of a drive, Stanford allows them to score scoring 43.8 percent of the time. Oregon’s offense scores 64.4 percent of the time after accomplishing the same task. S&P+ notices that deficiency and ranked Stanford No. 28 in drive efficiency, while Michigan State is No. 4 in the same category.

Mariota will need to get the Oregon offense moving against the nation’s best play-to-play defense, then finish drives with points as the past two meetings between the two teams have been decided by Oregon’s inability to score against Stanford on the plus side of the field. In 2013, Oregon missed out on two touchdowns after it fumbled inside the five yard line and called a fade route into the end-zone on fourth down.

In 2012, a failed fourth down play deep in Stanford territory and a pair of missed field goals led to an overtime loss.

If Oregon turns the ball over or misses field goals, Stanford’s seemingly improved offense will do everything it can to keep the Ducks off the field. Field position and special teams will likely determine this colossal matchup in the Pac-12 North.

Follow Josh Schlichter on Twitter @joshschlichter

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Josh Schlichter

Josh Schlichter